Raising...Ramsey, raising consciousness

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A SHREDDING machine couldn't have done a better job on our latest J.Crew catalog. My rattan wastebasket was significantly smaller than when I had last seen it. And the yardstick was down to 28 inches. It was not a pretty sight. The culprit was stretched out on the couch, innocently gnawing his proper chewstick, barely glancing in my direction. Like most rabbits, Ramsey makes no apologies for misbehaving. They just aren't like puppies who can look contrite, will come when you call, and can learn what's right and wrong. But what he lacks in those areas, he makes up for in entertainment - bounding around the house; stopping only for head rubs and an occasional nibble.

Nowadays, most people who know me wouldn't be surprised that I have a rabbit that roams through my house and that there's no meat in my freezer, or anywhere near it. But I wasn't always this way.

I grew up like millions of other American kids - eating hot dogs at baseball games with my dad, and helping my mom make ``heavenly hamburger,'' one of my favorite casseroles of the time. I never thought about the fact that I was eating cows or pigs. It was just beef, bacon, or ham.

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I wasn't even very interested in animals when I was growing up. It was my sister who raised the hamsters, brought home the injured birds, and begged for a dog.

I was reading ``Anne of Green Gables'' while she read ``Misty of Chincoteague.'' And I still remember, way back, playing with trolls while she played with plastic horses. (``Not just any old horses,'' she would say most emphatically. ``They're appaloosas.'')

IT'S not that I didn't like animals, it's just that I never gave them much thought. Which is why my mother seemed so surprised when I told her I had become a vegetarian. ``You're going to stop eating meat?'' she had asked in amazement. ``You'll shrink away!''

I managed to survive those first few years, naive though I was. I thought at first that a vegetarian simply left the meat out of a ``regular meal'' and was left with the potatoes and peas sitting like islands on a sea of plate. It took my husband and me quite a while to become more creative in the kitchen.

We were in the grocery store one day, our cart piled high with canned soups, deluxe noodle packages, and biscuit mixes. While stocking up in the Mexican food section, Ronn decided to read a label on a can of our regular refried beans. And there it was - halfway down the list, unobtrusively listed between the onion powder and salt. Animal fat. We looked at each other in dismay. And then down at the loaded cart.

Item by item we read the ingredients, and item by item they went back on the shelves. It was amazing how many things contained animal shortening (or lard). Back went the graham crackers, soups, cake mixes, even the trusty old quick-biscuit mix. When we were through, vegetables and dairy products were all that were left. It was then that we realized we had to trade off some of the convenience of frozen entrees and pre-packaged goods for the satisfaction of making more humane purchases.

We began doing some of our shopping in natural food stores, finding items we'd never heard of before. We discovered a great variety of good, wholesome things to eat. Many other cultures don't have the opportunity or inclination to use much meat, and have come up with wonderful dishes containing unusual ingredients like seitan (a whole wheat meat substitute which is thought of as ``mock duck''), tahini (a sesame paste used in Middle Eastern dishes), and of course tofu (a soybean curd used in many recipes).

WITH help from a vegetarian network of friends and natural food restaurants, we've come a long way in our creative cooking talents.

We've also pored over our vegetarian cookbooks. Now we make our own refried beans from soaked kidney beans, onions, and tomatoes. And we prepare meatless lasagna, spaghetti, casseroles, and quiches on the weekends and eat them throughout the busy weeks. I even like tofu now - for making marinated ``burgers'' and in curries and stir-fry.

To be honest, I don't quite remember why I started this new life style that winter five years ago. I used to say it was so I could look a pig in the face and say: ``I don't eat you.'' Actually, it just suddenly didn't seem right to eat animals anymore. And in the years since making that decision, my feelings have grown stronger and my explanations more precise.

Vegetarianism is now an integral part of my life. And the arrival of the rabbit has changed my life again, furthering my commitment to the protection of animals. Caring for such a small, defenseless creature made me start thinking about things I'd never considered before. It isn't that I had been an uncaring person, it's just that I'd never thought about the rights of animals before I got Ramsey. Here was a bunny whose relatives were being used to test ``new and improved'' perfumes, deodorants, and toilet bowl cleaners. I suddenly became determined that not only would Ramsey have a fulfilling bunny-life, but I would do what I could to help his friends and relatives as well.

This has led me into joining a number of animal rights groups. Doing volunteer work at one of these organizations has been an enlightening experience. I'm particularly impressed by the people at the meetings. I guess I was expecting some '60s leftovers, with their hearts in the right place, but out of sync with society. I have found, however, that the animal rights movement has become quite mainstream.

At the small group that met at a downtown city office recently, everyone was at a different stage of vegetarianism (from no-red-meat-eating to not eating or wearing any animal byproducts at all). And everyone had certain causes that they're most opposed to - hunting, vivisection (animal testing), the fur industry, or factory farming.

As for Ronn and me, we've simply decided to consider how our actions affect the rest of the world. Our pre-packaged, manufactured society tends to alienate us from the actual process of how things are done. It makes us uncomfortable to start thinking about what we're really buying. What's found on the market shelves bears no resemblance to the creature it used to be. It's easy to forget the connection between a hamburger and a steer. But when we stop and think about these things, it's easy to make other choices.

We don't buy products that are tested on animals. And we don't buy eggs from the supermarket - obtained from factory farms where the chickens are crammed seven to a foot-square space. The peaceful atmosphere of the stores that sell free-range eggs, organically grown produce, natural foods, and cruelty-free products is a welcome change from the usual supermarket hassles.

Becoming aware of animal rights and actually doing something about it has been a big life style change, and has taken a lot of time, effort, and deep thought. As with any ethical question, it is an engaging and evolving process. But when I lift Ramsey up and feel his bunny-silk against my cheek, I know I have made the right choice.

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